Search This Blog

Tuesday, March 2

Every Woman Deserves Four Things on Her Birthday

My Favourite Action Hero

At least once a year I get a clogged kitchen sink, the kind that no amount of liquid plumber can fix. Naturally, this tends to happen a few hours before a dinner party. It was on such an occasion I recalled having photographed a van parked in my neighbour's driveway. Veneda and I were walking the rutted country road to my house, when I spied a bright yellow van with the name Miss Fix It, Professional Tradeswoman emblazoned on the side. Whipping out my iPhone, I captured her impressive list of skills: Carpentry, Plumbing, Electrics, Home Repairs, Painting and Decorating, along with a phone number.

When I finally got around to ringing Miss Fix It, I was greeted by a confident woman with a charming, non-native accent. To my relief Miss Fix It was working at my neighbour's house that very day. A few hours later, I spotted Xena Warrior Princess leaping my back fence, sparkling plumber’s wrench in hand. Seriously. I was a huge fan of Xena Warrior Princess in the 90’s. Filmed in New Zealand, it featured the invisible Lucy Lawless as a mythological action hero. Twenty years on the show continues to have an enormous cult following. I’ve seen every episode at least twice, so easily recognise a honest-to-goodness warrior princess when I see one.

Seeing as Miss Fix It had Xena Warrior Princess's sapphire blue eyes and chiseled movie star bone structure, I ascertained she was from New Zealand. Like any action hero worthy of the title, Miss Fix It sorted out my plumbing in under twenty minutes. A couple weeks later she was back with Gabrielle, her sidekick and wonder dog Roxy, building me a brand, spanking new kitchen.

Miss Fix It turned out to be one of the most inspiring woman I've ever known. I often refer to her as The Woman Who Can Do Anything. And it’s true. She can build a whole house from top to bottom; Design every stick of furniture in it; Decorate it from top-to-bottom, including window coverings, tiling and wallpaper; Handle all the plumbing and electrics; Source light fixtures, appliances and fittings; Create an outdoor oasis, while making a memorable feast for a couple dozen friends. Indeed. On top of everything else, Miss Fix It is a world class cook, and hostess. She grows her own fruit and vegetables, makes sausage and pastrami, while mastering guitar and butchery skills. 

When not driving her bright yellow van, our action hero can be seen zipping around on one of a trio of motorbikes. She shares her adventures with two Irish Terriers and a her goddess-of-a-wife, 
Lucy, who grew up in South Africa. They meant in France and regularly holiday there, as well as New Zealand, Greece and South Africa. 

Miss Fix It’s name is Diane Mansfield. She is a big reason I stayed in England so long. She helped transform a house I never much liked into a home I loved. More importantly, she became family; heart-of-my-heart; tribe-of-my-tribe. Utterly irreplaceable. 

Besides making her a website, sixty-two days into the Gregorian Calendar, I make Diane her favourite cake, carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. I had never made a carrot cake until she arrived arrived on the scene, or if I did it turned out so badly I blocked all memory of it. Actually, the first carrot cake I made her ended up on the floor of my car. Since then, I’ve learned to never travel with a huge cake, on a slippery tray, without safety measures in place.

Every year the cake gets a little better. I’ve tried recipes from Martha Stewart, Nigella Lawson, the Barefoot Contessa and Back in The Day Bakery Cookbook. To be honest, they’re all pretty much the same, which is why I often say a recipe is an idea to put your own stamp on. 

The main ingredient that differentiates Diane’s Carrot Cake from the others is walnut oil. I think walnut oil makes a big difference in taste and texture. I also combine my ingredients differently and am more generous with the nuts. Once I sprang for cake flour, I could appreciate why one would want to make cakes with this lighter touch. I also make it with spelt flour for my daughter, who is gluten intolerant. Many people who can't stomach gluten, can enjoy baked goods made with spelt in moderation. 

To make Diane's Cake, you’ll need three - four hours from start to finish, depending on too may variables to list. In honour of Miss Fix It, employ all the power tools (electric gadgets) you want, or go with your two beautiful hands and a sturdy wooden spoon.  

Recipe can be easily doubled to make a massive cake, or a couple of regular size cakes. Works well with cupcakes too. 

Diane’s Carrot Cake

What You Need 

Unsalted Butter - about 60g  2oz
Carrots (grated) 400g  4 cups
Eggs - 4 (room temperature) 
Brown Sugar - 250g  1 cup
Granulated Sugar - 250g  1 cup
Walnut Oil - 250ml  9oz
Vanilla - 1 tablespoon
Nutmeg - 1 heaping teaspoon
Cinnamon - 1 heaping teaspoon
Sea Salt - 1 tsp
Baking Powder - 2 teaspoons
Baking Soda - 2 teaspoons
Desiccated Coconut - 2 heaping tablespoons
Cake Flour or Spelt Flour - 200g  2 cups
Currants (dried) 100g  1 cup
Walnuts or Pecans - 400g  4 cups

What You Do 

Preheat oven to 180c  350F

Prepare pans (I prefer silicon pans because carrot cake can be quite sticky) by generously buttering bottom and sides, or with the non-stick spray of your choice. 

I grate the carrots first because they're often quite juicy. This gives them time to dry out. Grate them with your favourite grater (I use a box grater) Naturally, a food processor works well too. After grating, turn carrots into a colander, placed in a bowl for draining. I usually end up with at least half a cup of carrot juice which I enjoy drinking. 

While carrots sit in the colander, combine eggs, sugars, walnut oil and vanilla, in a large bowl. Beat until light and fluffy. Add nutmeg, cinnamon, salt, baking powder, baking soda. Mix well. Next fold in coconut and flour, mix thoroughly. Finally, stir in carrots, currants and about half the walnuts, reserving the second half for decorating the cake. Blend everything together with wooden spoon.

Pour batter in prepared pans, place in middle of oven and bake for approximately 25 minutes. Check cake by inserting thin wooden pick in middle. When it comes out clean, remove cake from oven. Don't be alarmed if your cake looks quite dark. Carrot Cake can darken up considerably during the baking process. 

Take a butter knife around the edges of your cake, while it cools. This will make it easier to release from the pan, even a silicon pan. Allow cake to cool for about 15 minutes, then gently transfer to plate. 

When cake is completely cool, frost as you desire. I like a lot of frosting, so tend to smother everything with a generous layer. Top with walnuts. Stash cake in the fridge until serving. Many contend carrot cake tastes better the second day. It tastes fabulous when freshly baked and up to several days thereafter. 

What You Need for The Icing

Unsalted Butter (room temperature) - 250g  8oz
Cream Cheese (full fat, at room temperature please) - 750g  24oz
Icing Sugar - 800g  1.8lb
Vanilla - 1 tbs

What You Do 

Combine soft butter, cream cheese and vanilla in a large bowl until well blended. Add sugar. Beat everything together until achieving the texture you desire, ideally with a mixer. Pile it on your gorgeous cake. 

I've also made the icing without butter, just cream cheese, vanilla and icing sugar. It's lighter, which I prefer, but everything from the icing to the cake itself requires refrigeration, so a tad more fiddly. If you're transporting the cake, you want the added stiffness of the butter. 

Ideas and Suggestions

Smaller carrots usually taste sweeter than big ones. Carrots still attached to their greenery taste best of all. Sifting all the dry ingredients makes a lighter cake - along with the above mentioned cake flour. Other spices that work equally well with carrot cake, besides nutmeg and cinnamon, include ginger and cloves. As Diane dislikes cloves, I never use them when baking for her, though I personally love them. 

If you don’t have walnut oil, try any nut oil. 

I’ve become a big fan of silicone pans because they’re so easy to use. They also seem to cool quicker and with a sticky batter, like Carrot Cake, it's easier not to tear the cake when transferring from pan to plate. 

Enthusiasm is good, but try to refrain from putting too much batter in your pans. I'm a chronic over-pan-filler, thus I have to show a lot of restraint filling the pans to about 60%. Cake bakes better and more evenly when it has space. It’s also easier to handle smaller layers.

If you don't like nuts in your cake, leave the walnuts out and add a 250g 1 cup to your batter with the flour. 

And finally, everything tastes better when shaped in a heart.

Every Woman Deserves Four Things on Her Birthday:

To Know She’s Loved, Admired and Adored.  

Homemade Cake, preferably by someone who knows how to bake. 

Arm Loads of Her Favourite Fresh Blooms. 

Home Cooked Dinner Featuring Her Favourite Foods.